The Importance of Checklists
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Written by Greg Barnes
A 12-year-old boy stands by the door, ready to head out to the bus stop for a long day of school. He’s rubbing his eyes because he stayed up WAY too late playing League of Legends.
Backpack? Check. Lunch? Check. Brushed teeth? Check. Hair parted correctly? Check. (But he messes it up once the bus starts moving.)
But there’s something he’s forgetting…… what is it?? He can’t remember. He knows it’s something obvious but can’t quite place it.
Suddenly, without warning, his mother swoops in like a mighty eagle upon its prey, opening her mouth to deliver a sloppy, drooling kiss onto her son’s cheek.
Talk about not satisfying “See and Avoid” requirements! But that poor child, had he had a “Goin 2 Skewl” checklist, would not have overlooked his mother’s daily ritual — his daily bane. Instead, he would have “Seen and Avoided,” running out the door before she’d gotten the chance.
That very day, angered and frustrated at having forgotten something so obvious, the boy decided to quit video games forever. He also decided to make a school day checklist so he would never again make a similar mistake.
Sad for that boy. But what’s even sadder is that when people in the drone industry overlook a piece of equipment or a step in their process, their risk is much greater than the risk of the 12-year-old boy who doesn’t want a goodbye kiss.
Dong and I have overlooked things before, and believe me, it is NOT fun. We have wasted time, having to go back and retrieve forgotten equipment. We have wasted money, buying duplicates of items we already owned but had left behind, so we had to buy them again on the way to a project. (I’m a guy who’s been known to unintentionally buy 3 copies of the same book, because twice I forgot that I already had it!) We have wasted emotional energy, wondering whether items we left on the field would even be there when we got back.
And just like the boy, Dong and I have created checklists, because we only want it to take one mistake before we learn.
Our checklists guide Dong and me through various different steps of the mission planning and actual flight process. They are a great help, but boy oh boy do they take time to implement! First, it takes so much time to create them. Then, before, during and after every mission, we spend countless little bits of time here and there referring back to the checklists to make sure we didn’t overlook anything. Those little bits of time here and there are like potato chips. It just takes a moment to eat one here, another there… but by the time the whole bag has gone, all those bits of time have added up to 20 minutes.
An impatient remote pilot would never have time for such trivial matters. “Just get it up and back down again, fast,” he thinks. But if that don’t work for a woman, why would it work for a high-paying client?! Our goal is not to save the most tiny snippets of time, but instead, to fly the mission safely, efficiently, and with an effective outcome... and checklists are the best way to accomplish that.
I think back to December of 2021 — just a few months ago — when we went to Palau for the first time for drone work. In preparation for that trip, we created one master checklist which incorporated everything we thought we would need. It included:
A comprehensive list of equipment we needed to bring from Guam.
Equipment we needed to buy in Palau, complete with names of the businesses, phone numbers, and Google Maps links where we could buy that equipment.
To-do lists for each day of the operation. For example, we had lots of things to do the day before the main operation, and we had everything written down. Our list was:
Rent a bush cutter,
Find somewhere to rent a canopy for the next day,
Buy extra necessary equipment like spray paint,
Visit the site,
Do a pre-flight to establish our MOCA (Minimum Obstacle Clearance Altitude, which is the minimum height you must fly in order to clear the highest obstacle in the area),
Cut the grass at the location,
Use spray paint to mark our GCP (ground control point) locations,
Determine backup GCP sites, and
Back at the hotel, upload the final KML file from the surveyors into UgCS, our flight software.
An entire, thorough operational checklist for the day of the flight — even down to the exact buttons to press on the computer.
(We even had lists of people we needed to buy souvenirs for, arranged in order of who we loved most to least.)
Every time there is a software or firmware update for the drone or for our computer or tablet software which flies the drone, we do a quick flight to test functionality. (We literally just did that yesterday!) More often than not, these updates make changes to the user interface or to the way the software works, which means that things often don’t work for us the same way they did before. That means we have to edit our checklists to reflect those changes. Often times with these software updates, there is a major loss in functionality, which is a clear sign of a software bug. In those cases, we message the developers and hope the bugs quickly get squashed — crushed, really — under the heavy boot of the developers’ modified code.
Why do we do all this after EVERY software update? I remember it distinctly. It was a Thursday afternoon, and we had a MAJOR project coming up on Monday. We’d just updated our software, and we went out the same afternoon to test it. To our horror, the drone didn’t even launch! We were able to shoot out a bug report to the developers that day before 5:00, and by the very next afternoon (Friday), there was already another update — a brand new update fixing the error we’d had the previous day.
If we had simply updated the software and trusted that it worked, we would have driven to the job site like a groom driving to his wedding without first having tried on his tux. That’s a detail that needs to be established beforehand! Instead, like the groom who gets his tux early enough to realize he’s too fat to fit in it and has time to resize it, we were able to alert the developers and had time to get it fixed, only because we tested in advance.
We’ve always checked the airspace and weather before we’ve flown, making sure we have the proper authorization to fly, and the go-ahead from mother nature. We would HATE it if our great mother nature decided to drop a wet, drooling kiss on us and our tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment! While this has been something we’ve always done, it wasn’t in our checklists until recently. Now, for each mission, we have a physical sheet of paper with areas to write in the classification of airspace the mission will be in, whether we need special authorization (is it a LAANC or a CoA/CoW, and if so, what is that CoA number?). That same sheet also has fields where we write information about the weather that day, including cloud information, visibility, wind directed, sustained wind speed, wind gust speed — even the KP-Index (an indicator of the severity of geomagnetic disturbance caused by solar storms, which could lead to loss of GPS).
As you can see, our checklists have been pretty darn thorough, and generally, we’ve been very happy with them.
But we’re far from done on this front. Recently, Dong and I have been studying for AUVSI TOP Level 1 certification. (The FAA Part 107 certification — which is the most basic, fundamental certification that any commercial drone pilot must have — is very much rooted in FAA rules and regulations, with little practical skill required. This new certification is much more rooted in critical thinking and practical aspects to flying drones.
These practical aspects could be as simple as:
Remembering not only to bring the SD card, but remembering to actually insert it into the drone! (Yes, we admit, we have forgotten before!)
Rather than just looking at your drone for 1 second before and after each flight and considering that your pre- and post-flight inspection (which is entirely inadequate), having each component printed on the sheet, so you remember to check each specifically (i.e. propellers, gimbal, camera, casing, etc.).
Having important point of contacts’ (such as site managers, law enforcement personnel, etc.) names and numbers written down on the sheet, so that we can easily find their information and courtesy call them moments before and after the flight.
Confirming your pre-established MOCA once the drone is in the air.
Writing down any unexpected problems while still out on the field, so that we can easily remember and address them in our post-mission debriefings.
(These are just some extremely basic things that the course gets into. But actually, getting the AUVSI TOP Certification isn’t this easy; it’s actually much, much deeper.)
We’re thankful that we already have a long record of flying safely and efficiently, and for getting effective outcomes from our missions. As we continue to learn and grow and make these small, incremental kinds of adjustments along the way, just as any business does, we are excited at how our operations will only continue to improve from here, like a boy who makes a checklist, or a groom who goes on a diet!
blog written by
Operations Manager, 2cofly